America has always been a land of contradictions. At the very least we could say the nation’s history has featured the sometimes creative, sometimes destructive interplay of certain tensions. At least one of these tensions can be traced right back to the earliest European settlers. In New England, Puritans established a “city on a hill,” a community ordered around the realization of a spiritual ideal. Further south came adventurers, hustlers, and entrepreneurs looking to make their fortune. God and gold, to borrow the title of Walter R. Mead’s account of the Anglo-American contribution to the formation of the modern world, sums it up nicely. Of course, this is also a rather ancient opposition. But perhaps we could say that never before had these two strands come together in quite the same way to form the double helix of a nation’s DNA.
This tension between spirituality and materialism also overlaps with at least two other tensions that have characterized American culture from its earliest days: The first of these, the tension between communitarianism and individualism, is easy to name. The other, though readily discernible, is a little harder to capture. For now I’m going to label this pair hustle and contemplation and hope that it conveys the dynamic well enough. Think Babbitt and Thoreau.
These pairs simplify a great deal of complexity, and of course they are merely abstractions. In reality, the oppositions are interwoven and mutually dependent. But thus qualified, they nonetheless point to recurring and influential types within American culture. These types, however, have not been balanced and equal. There has always seemed to be a dominant partner in each pairing: materialism, individualism, and hustle. But it would be a mistake to underestimate the influence of spirituality, communitarianism, and contemplation. Perhaps it is best to view them as the counterpoint to the main theme of American culture, together creating the harmony of the whole.
One way of nicely summing up all that is entailed by the counterpoints is to call it the pursuit of the simple life. The phrase sounds quaint, but it worked remarkably well in the hands of historian David E. Shi. In 1985, right in the middle of the decade that was to become synonymous with crass materialism – the same year Madonna released “Material Girl” – Shi published The Simple Life: Plain Living And High Thinking In American Culture. The audacity!
Shi weaves a variegated tapestry of individuals and groups that have advocated the simple life in one form or another throughout American history. Even though he purposely leaves out the Amish, Mennonites, and similar communities, he still is left with a long and diverse list of practitioners. Altogether they represent a wide array of motives animating the quest for the simple life. These include: “a hostility toward luxury and a suspicion of riches, a reverence for nature and a preference for rural over urban ways of life and work, a desire for personal self-reliance through frugality and diligence, a nostalgia for the past and a scepticism toward the claims of modernity, conscientious rather than conspicuous consumption, and an aesthetic taste for the plain and functional.”
This net gathers together Puritans and Quakers, Jeffersonians and Transcendentalists, Agrarians and Hippies, and many more. Perhaps if Shi were to update his work he might include hipsters in the mix. In any case, he would have no shortage of contemporary trends and movements to choose from. None of them dominant, of course, but recognizable and significant counterpoints still.
If I were tasked with updating Shi’s book, for example, I would certainly include a chapter on the critics of the digital age. Not all such critics would fit neatly into the simple life tradition, but I do think a good many would – particularly those who are concerned that the pace and rhythm of digitally augmented life crowds out solitude, silence, and reflection. Think, for example, of the many “slow” movements and advocates (myself included) of digital sabbaths. They would comfortably take their place alongside a many of the individuals and movements in Shi’s account who have taken the personal and social consequences of technological advance as their foil. Thoreau is only the most famous example.
Setting present day critics of digital life in the tradition identified by Shi has a few advantages. For one thing, it reminds us that the challenges posed by digital technologies, while having their particularities, are not entirely novel in character. Long before the dawn of the digital age, individuals struggled to find the right balance between their ideals for the good life and the possibilities and demands created by the emergence of new technologies.
Moreover, we may readily and fruitfully apply some of Shi’s conclusions about the simple life tradition to the contemporary criticisms of life in the digital age.
First, the simple life has always been a minority ethic. “Many Americans have not wanted to lead simple lives,” Shi observes, “and not wanting to is the best reason for not doing so.” But, in his view, this does not diminish the salutary leavening effect of the few on the culture at large.
Yet , Shi concedes, “Proponents of the simple life have frequently been overly nostalgic about the quality of life in olden times, narrowly anti-urban in outlook , and too disdainful of the benefits of prosperity and technology.” Better to embrace the wisdom of Lewis Mumford, “one of the sanest of all the simplifiers” in Shi’s estimation. According to Mumford,
“It is not enough to say, as Rousseau once did, that one has only to reverse all current practice to be right … If our new philosophy is well-grounded we shall not merely react against the ‘air-conditioned nightmare’ of our present culture; we shall also carry into the future many elements of quality that this culture actually embraces.”
Sound advice indeed.
If we are tempted to dismiss the critics for their inconsistencies, however, Shi would have us think again: “When sceptics have had their say, the fact remains that there have been many who have demonstrated that enlightened self-restraint can provide a sensible approach to living that can be fruitfully applied in any era.”
But it is important to remember that the simple life at its best, now as ever, requires a person “willing it for themselves.” Impositions of the simple life will not do. In fact, they are often counterproductive and even destructive. That said, I would add, though Shi does not make this point in his conclusion, that the simple life is perhaps best sustained within a community of practice.
Wisely, Shi also observes, “Simplicity is more aesthetic than ascetic in its approach to good living.” Consequently, it is difficult to lay down precise guidelines for the simple life, digital or otherwise. Moderation takes many forms. And so individuals must deliberately order their priorities “so as to distinguish between the necessary and superfluous, useful and wasteful, beautiful and vulgar,” but no one such ordering will be universally applicable.
Finally, Shi’s hopeful reading of the possibilities offered by the pursuit of the simple life remains resonant:
“And for those with the will to believe in the possibility of the simple life and act accordingly, the rewards can be great. Practitioners can gradually wrest control of their own lives from the manipulative demands of the marketplace and the workplace … Properly interpreted, such a modern simple life informed by its historical tradition can be both socially constructive and personally gratifying.”
Nathan Jurgenson has recently noted that criticisms of digital technologies are often built upon false dichotomies and a lack of historical perspective. In this respect they are no different than criticisms advanced by advocates of the simple life who were also tempted by similar errors. Ultimately, this will not do. Our thinking needs to be well-informed and clear-sighted, and the historical context Shi provides certainly moves us toward that end. At the very least, it reminds us that the quest for simplicity in the digital age had its analog precursors from which we stand to learn a few things.